Communities, Networks and Connected Learning with Google

This is based on a presentation at the Melbourne GAFESummit held at Xavier College on September 19th and 20th, 2016.


There have been many changes to learning brought about in the past decade, from MOOCs to social media, often though there are so many options that it can be hard to know where to start and more importantly, why. Technology enables us to easily develop digital communities and networks inside and outside of the classroom. The reality though is that connected learning is as much about creating spaces for learning and building on that, so let us start there.

Teaching Crowds Online

One of the catchphrases that gets bandied around when it comes to learning online is the ability to tune in ‘anywhere, anytime’. This may well be true with the proliferation of connected devices and cloud services. However, I wonder if the focus on anywhere, anytime overlooks the complexities of the pedagogies and practices in these spaces? The question that seems to get overlooked is what do the complexities within these spaces look like, how do the different roles and relationships change and what are influences and expectations on pedagogy and practice?

So often the edict when it comes to online learning is that ‘the smartest person in the room is the room’, but what does this ‘room’ look like and how do we participate within it? Coming at the problem from a different perspective, David White talks about ‘coalescent spaces’, those spaces which bridge the digital and physical. This is useful in representing difference, but it does not necessarily capture the influence of the various platforms and programs on different spaces. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall talk about the three pronged approach involving personal learning communities, communities of practice and personal learning networks. Although this model is useful in addressing the roles of the connected educator, they do not capture what is involved when it comes of learning and teaching in such spaces. In contrast to these varying representations, Jon Dron and Terry Anderson provide a model which encapsulates some of the complexities around the purpose and pedagogies associated with learning online.

In the book Teaching Crowds, Dron and Anderson unpack the different ways that people gather within online spaces. To do so, they focus on three key modes of learning:

  • Groups: Distinct entities independent of membership, groups are structured around formal lines of authority. An example are the various learning management systems. Organised hierarchically, they do not allow for cross-system dissemination.
  • Networks: Based on individual connections, networks evolve through interactions. Examples of such spaces are social network platforms, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. These spaces create the means easily sharing and connecting with others.
  • Sets: Bound together by a commonality, with sets there are no expectations of personal engagement. Some examples of sets are social interest sites, such as Pinterest. Both of which provide means of easily finding similar ideas.

Dron and Anderson sum up these differences as follows:

Groups are social forms where individuals deliberately join others with shared goals and identify with group norms and behaviours.

Nets are social forms where the connections between individuals and sometimes clusters of individuals are what bind them together.

Sets are social forms where people may have no knowledge of others in the set but are clustered by commonalities between them. This may lead to strong identification and trust in some cases, but not typically.

Additionally, there are also further hybrid forms, which combine different features from the three modes of learning:

  • Communities of Practice: These involve clusters of people addressing a particular purpose or process. They occur around the intersections between groups and networks.
  • Communities of Interest: Also described as tribes, these communities involve bringing people together around complex ideas and interests, tied together by certain rules and expectations. They occur around the intersection between groups and sets.
  • Circles: In an effort to manage the immensity of networks, circles are where people are sorted into less arbitrary categories. They involve the intersection between networks and sets.
  • Incorporating all of these modes and hybrids are Collectives where the crowd acts as a single user. In this circumstance, collectives organise learning through the use of algorithms, allowing the user some amount of control and autonomy.

It is important to consider these modes and hybrids when developing the needs and goals associated with learning online. Although it has become accepted that learning can occur anywhere, anytime, it is just as important to acknowledge the pedagogy and practice being enacted within these varying contexts. Software that connects learners therefore needs to be carefully selected to support the needs at hand. This is done by firstly appreciating the purpose and intent of the learning at hand and secondly, being open and aware of the various possibilities.


Google Apps and the Connected Learner

It can be easy to get caught up with Google Apps for Education as being a tool to rule them all. This is only true though when you deny the different parts that assemble together to make the whole. When it comes to connected learning, Google Apps does provide many options. Here then is a summary of some of those applications and the different modes of learning that they support:

Google+

Google’s attempt at a social media platform, Google+ is designed to ideally connect together products, such as YouTube, Google Photos and Blogger. You are able to incorporate various content types, including images, videos, polls, check-ins and links. It also allows for the use of hashtags within the text. There is no avenue to embed content within a post, however posts can be embedded elsewhere. Google+ is divided into four parts: Home, Communities and Collections.

  • The Home page contains a stream of information presented as a series of cards. It is either shared publicly or more directly to chosen contacts. In regards to connecting with other users, this is predominantly a network space. There are some means of cross-dissemination with the new and unfamiliar through the use of hashtags, although this seems more common within other platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram.
  • Circles provide the means of organising those who you connect with. Although there are some predefined circles, you can easily add and delete these, meaning that you can make them into whatever you want. People can be added to multiple circles. One of the benefits to circles is the ability to share to a particular group and control who sees what.
  • Whether closed or open, Communities allow the creation of a central space for an idea, subject or topic. These are spaces organised around customised categories, as well as the hashtags.
  • Collections provide a means of curating content. Collections made public are shared with everyone you follow. However, public Collections can also be followed directly. Unlike Communities though, there are no means of organising information through categories, while each Collection only has one contributor.

With Google+’s direct connection to the open web, there are various age limits which apply in school. Subsequently, Google+ is more commonly used by staff and senior students.

Google Groups

Similar in some ways to Communities, Groups allows you to share ideas and information in a number of ways. Whether it be in the form of a mailing list, through forum posts with threaded conversations or via regular email updates. Where Groups stand out is the ability to create a unique email address for a group, as well as easily export lists of members. Although the hierarchical nature means that groups can be very structured, the ability to join open groups and use them in different ways also means that they can also be used to support network modes of learning.

YouTube

It is often stated that there is over 500 hours of content added to YouTube every minute. Although there is content shares by paid professionals, a lot of what is added is made by amateur creators. This diversity is only aided by the move to close Hangouts On Air in order to focus on YouTube Live. The breadth of interests and ideas lends itself to supporting sets. This subsequently creates a somewhat impersonal mode of learning. It is often because of this that YouTube comments are a home for trolls.

Google Hangouts

The removal of On Air to YouTube means that Hangouts focus is on more ad hoc chat and communication. Although you can still connect via video, voice and text, as well as share your screen, you now need to use YouTube Live or a third party application to record Hangouts. Whereas On Air was more structured, the informal nature of Hangouts now focuses on networking.

Blogger

As a platform, Blogger provides a range of options, such as HTML and tags, but tries not to overly complicate things (a complaint often made about WordPress.)  In regards to infrastructure, it has a simple back-end and is relatively easy to use. Comments can be connected with Google+, while you are also able to easily link to other Google+ users. Coming back to modes of learning, blogs are unique in that they can provide the means of sharing ideas contributing to a set, collaborating with a network or organising a group.

Google Sites

Sites allows you to easily create all sorts of web pages. There are a number of options in regards to themes, layouts and page types. With the means of integrating with Google Apps through the file cabinet page, it is common for Sites to be used as a repository. Although you can add multiple users and control permissions, Sites can quickly become unwieldy with too many moderators. While unlike  Blogger and Groups, options such as the announcement page type are limited to broadcasting information. It is for these reasons that Sites is more suited to group modes of learning, rather than sets or nets. There is nothing that I have seen in regards to the new Sites would necessarily change this.

Google Classroom

Google Classroom is a platform for communicating and collaborating using Google Apps for Education. Unlike other platforms, Classroom focuses on three key areas: posing questions, making announcements and setting assignments. There are also other functions, such as emailing the parents and students, which support the coordination of learning. Although by its nature in being led by the teacher(s), it usually supports group-based learning. I have however seen Classroom used to bring together students across a whole level. This therefore brings in some of the benefits of network learning.

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This list of applications provided by Google Apps is only the beginning. There are so many other options for engaging within virtual learning spaces. Maybe it is using Spaces, Padlet, SeeSaw and Global2 to collect and coordinate sets of information, curating content with Tagboard and Feedly or managing groups using Hapara. So what about you, what are the modes of learning are prominent in your classroom? What is the relationship between virtual learning spaces and the pedagogies being enacted? And what are students actually doing while they are learning anywhere, anytime? As always, thoughts and questions welcome.


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Communities, Networks and Connected Learning with Google by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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